Managers’ Lives Ruled By Paradox

It’s something that I felt when I was a manager myself – since I’ve been teaching, I realised it fully & even tell my students about it: a large part of the art of management consists of a balancing act between mutually exclusive extremes – call them paradoxa, if you wish, or dilemmas. Take the positions “order” vs. “disorder”, or “control” vs. “freedom”. There are (at least) 2 types of management paradoxa: existential ones, and circumstantial ones.

The two examples mentioned belong in the first category: they come with human existence and cannot (though management theory wishes to makes us believe they could) be eliminated. There are others though, which are simply opposites, like “centralisation” and “decentralisation”. These are not existential, hence the price to remain in one position is relatively small. Organisations (and managers with them) respond by oscillating between these extremes, at variable periods. For the de/centralisation example, the period I observed is about 5-7 years for multi-national companies: every 5 years or so, the price paid for a centralised structure (bureaucracy, lack of market and customer focus, corporate overheads etc.) are felt painfully, and the organisation swings back to the opposite extreme. When decentralisation is complete, its effects are also felt painfully after a while (lack of control, fragmentation, communication costs etc.).

I tend to think that “ir-/responsibility”, or rather “responsible” vs. “irresponsible” behaviour, at least on the level of the individual, is another paradox-pair belonging in the “existential” category.

Now, a possible comment, especially if you know about the theory and practice of existential psychotherapy and philosophy (closely linked) is: what’s so special about managers – every human lives with existential paradox! – The interesting is, that in the world of management, paradox is not supposed to exist. Where it exists, it is supposed to be ruled out, defeated systematically by force and by the changing nature of business. This, of course, is essentially based on a positivist approach to human nature. It fails in business as in the world outside of business. Nevertheless, it is a strongly espoused theory of behaviour and the nature of business.

What’s the remedy – if any? There isn’t one if you want to get rid of paradox. This is where my thought touches upon C G Jung’s concept of a “shadow”. All you can hope to do is become(more) aware of the power of paradox, and try to balance the opposites as well as you can. Now: a practical, useful concept of “responsibility” ought to include this awareness and techniques, or methods, for helping managers keep their balance in the presence of paradox.

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